‘Learned helplessness’ (a term coined by Martin Seligman, the eminent psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania), refers to what happens if rewards and punishments are not tied to merit. “People simply give up and stop trying to succeed,” so writes Arthur Brooks in The Road to Freedom: How to Win the Fight for Free Enterprise.
This learned helplessness is the model in social-democratic Spain and most all of Europe. Moreover, learned helplessness is the reason they remain stuck in recession, with the Eurozone falling apart, unemployment at 24 percent and higher, youth giving up trying to find work, and half of the people up to age 35 still living with their parents.
The earned success model, on the other hand, is obviously the model of the United States, and it has been actively promoted by all modern presidents, both Republican and Democrat.
Now, this simple cultural imperative is being subjected to a full-on assault and punishment scheme organized right from the Oval Office. Barack Obama has put his imprimatur on a new playbook. He’s telling every business in America, and every worker in America, that he prefers the socialism of Old-Europe and the learned helplessness of old-Europe. Why?
The two reasons, as best we can tell, are first, Obama naturally believes in wealth distribution models over wealth creation models. He said so with his “spread the wealth” answer to Joe the Plummer in 2008. Second, Obama is so desperate to get re-elected and feels a need to pander to the most radically wrong elements of this base. Neither reason is an endorsement of his second-term leadership capabilities.
John Hawkins offers a colorful view of this inhospitality to business: “When Uday Hussein used to run Iraq’s soccer team, players who performed poorly were slapped, spit on, and beaten with electric cables until the blood flowed. This is similar to how liberals treat American businesses. They demonize them, raise their taxes, bury them in new regulations, make it easier to sue them, and harass them with regulatory agencies at every turn. Then, they become puzzled as to why those same businesses aren’t creating jobs or are looking to move more of their business overseas. You can’t cut the sparrow’s throat and fry it up for dinner and listen to it sing at the same time.”
Or, to extend Hawkins’ metaphor, you can’t isolate the sparrow in a cage and expect it to grow and multiply. And what is the guiding hand of a government bureaucrat but a cage. Sure, it keeps the business from flying away (until the door is opened). In the meantime, the business lives in a state of anxiety, not knowing what to expect. It could lose profits via new taxes. It could see huge new expenses because of regulations. It could have projects shut down by the EPA. It could face huge lawsuits for spurious reasons. It could be crippled by labor union strikes. On and on from multiple directions, the painful assaults fly and attack businesses trapped in the government cage.
The business lives in a state of anxiety long enough, and it tends to become cautious and freezes. It doesn’t hire. It doesn’t expand. As Hawkins quips, “It hordes cash to make sure that it doesn’t get wiped out by some arbitrary decision made by a government official who has never so much as run a lemonade stand in his life.”
Or it takes an entirely different tact. After a while, when the earned success model dies, learned helplessness kicks in, and the battered sparrow learns to survive by sucking off the public teat. To stay alive, the business gears up its lobbying efforts and discovers which of the palms in Washington need the most greasing.
Photo credit: terrellaftermath
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